Is Getting a PhD Worth It?
Every year around September I get anxious. The reason is that I have spent the majority of my life in school and have only graduated about three years ago. For me, September is both the start of a new school year and a reminder of my thesis exam. When the summer is done and the leaves start to fall, sometimes I forget that I graduate and ponder why I am not working on my thesis.
I look quite young for my age and colleagues are sometimes surprised when they learn that I have graduated from a PhD program. They often ask: “Is it worth it to pursue a PhD degree?”
I have given different answers over the past few years, from outright rejection to enthusiastic recommendation, where disfavorable views were inversely proportional to the square of time elapsed since my thesis exam. I feel now that three years have passed, it might be a good idea for me to revisit this question.
Before I dive into this, I want to tell you what this post is not about. This post is not a resounding yes or a complete dismissal of PhD programs. I am not here to convince you (not) to pursue a PhD. We all have our personal stories and reasons to embark on this and other similar journeys. If you have already finished your PhD, my intention is not to belittle or praise you for achieving this feat. Your personal journey is special to you and you are probably the only person who should judge the value of your graduate student days.
So what is this post actually about? This is my personal story, and what I think of the PhD program after breaking out of the academic cocoon three years ago. At the end of this post, I am going to state some opinions, which I believe are true for a major cross-section of the academic pyramid. Regardless of your place in this pyramid, you might benefit from my take.
I graduated from a respectable PhD program with multiple publications in top tier journals in biomedical engineering. However, towards the end of my thesis defence, when I was asked if I was considering a career in academia, my answer was a resounding no. I was tired of publishing papers and felt that my work lacked impact. This was partially true, the topic that I was working on was being eclipsed by the machine learning renaissance. Given that I was not interested in a post-doc position doing more of the same, I looked for an industrial position.
At the time of my graduation, the industry was looking for two types of people: 1) those who could code well; and 2) those who understood statistical learning methods intimately. Preferably the unicorn that could do both. When I graduated, I lacked the first skillset, but at the same time, I knew it was just a matter of reading relevant papers. And I was really good at reading academic papers.
Had my thesis been on something machine learning related, I could have hit the ground running, but a thesis topic is usually dictated by the funding that the PhD advisor has secured through a research grant for a predetermined project. Of course, the student might be able to change the project if they really want to, but it is risky. Rebooting the thesis topic after years of preparation is not advisable, and you really do not want to pivot just to chase the most recent fad.
I had started working in a start-up when I was putting the finishing touches on my PhD thesis. Unfortunately, the startup ran out of funding and closed its doors one week after I defended my thesis. I found a position at a different start-up about a month later as a machine learning scientist. Now, I did not have the same skills as someone whose thesis was directly on statistical learning, but neither could the start-up afford actual data scientists. This resulted in a very fruitful collaboration, from which I gained valuable time to learn the necessary skillsets, and my employers could leverage what I had learned to solve business problems. That start-up has successfully exited and my old colleagues are solving other interesting problems.
So… Was a PhD Worth It?
For me, it ended up working out. I enjoy coding, and most of my job requires software development skills. However, for me, software development is a means to an end and I usually get bored with projects that do not include research. In this case, having a PhD is definitely an asset. The research prowess that you acquire during your days as a graduate student allows you to teach yourself new skills, and if you graduated from a mathematics heavy discipline, you can easily change gears and pursue a different industry after graduation.
OK… But What About Me?
I think, unless you are admitted to a respectable PhD program from a respectable school, a PhD is not worth the effort. Professors that teach at lower rank schools are more likely to be out of touch with current state of the art, and the academic quality of students that you encounter are going to be lower. Remember that you are the weighted average of your peers.
Now, some might argue that graduate school is not worth the investment even if the school is prestigious, and that you are better of going into the industry… And they are right. But it all depends on what you want out of your career. And in which company you acquire that industrial experience. When the discussion gets to this stage, I bring up the following analogy.
In smaller communities, investment in a stable real-state market for a house is considered low-risk-low-return. If you have a portfolio manager and start investing in the financial market, you will probably make a bigger profit on your capital. However, people that buy a house usually have a larger net-worth when they have finished their payments compared to those who do not purchase property. Now, why is that? This is because many that opt out of real-state end up spending their money rather than investing it.
Going to graduate school is similar to buying a house, you are investing four to five years of your twenties acquiring research skills, which in hindsight might not be as valuable as learning those same skills in the industry. But then again, not everyone is guaranteed to work in a company that allows them to grow and acquire those skills. Graduate school is the housing investment. You might not gain as much as the person who is working at Google, but most people do not work for Google right out of their undergrad.